More than normal, I mean.
While fandom has always been a little bit crazy, it’s hard to deny that it has gotten exponentially worse in the past few years.
From the simple toxicity in fandom discourse increasing, to death threats made towards creators if they don’t toe the line the fandom wants, to groups of fans creating little brigades to ‘protect’ their fandom (see: harassing anyone they don’t like under the guise of morality), it’s gotten pretty bad.
The question is, why?
Well, if you read that headline up there, you’ll know I’m about to tell you why.
The answer is religion, or specifically, the lack of religion in the lives of millennials and the new generation.
Now, before you close this tab, lemme clarify: this isn’t about how the downswing of religion has corroded the moral fiber, or anything. It’s more interesting than that. And complex.
Religion has a function in society. It serves a purpose. This is true regardless of ones own beliefs. Unlike the existence or non-existence of any sort of supreme deity, the functions of religion have been thoroughly documented and studied. If you want a more thorough breakdown beyond the summary I’m about to give, go read Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
Religion acts as a support system and a shared moral system. As a result, religion is something of a ‘cultural shorthand’. Finding out someone’s religion quickly tells you a great many things about them. This is useful in social interactions, as it quickly tells you who you’re more likely to get along with. To put it in a bit of a primitive way, it makes it easy to find one’s ‘allies’.
If one is Catholic, and meets another Catholic, they instantly know they share a great many beliefs about life, justice, morality and the like. If one is in an entirely new place, finding the local congregation of their own religion is a fast way to build a support network from zero. These are important functions.
And with religion out of vogue, especially among the youth, something had to fulfill that function. It’s important and necessary. One of the things that has usurped this function is incredibly specific political labels. While highly specific terms for one’s political beliefs have always existed, they broke into the mainstream far more than they ever had before in the recent decade. They usurped that function of cultural shorthand, one’s own specific political identifier essentially became a flag one waved while attempting to find like minded people. That’s fine.
What isn’t fine is that fandom has also usurped the function of religion for a large amount of people. Fandom is, frankly, not capable of acting in this manner, and the result is the explosion of atrocious fandoms full of toxicity and at times outright criminality and violence. Most works of fiction have something to say, but few if any present an entire system of morality. Yet despite this, many treat it as such. Therein lies the problem.
Religion inherently has a barrier to entry. It’s (often, not always, it varies by religion) a simple barrier, but a barrier nonetheless. You have to live by the religion’s rules and moral system. In a way, this can be considered payment for the support system the religion offers. If you’re not a believer, you don’t get in. Pretty simple. That’s how it retains it’s usefulness as an identifier. Knowing someone was a Catholic wouldn’t matter if they didn’t have to follow the rules.
(And yes, many religions do charitable work even for those outside their faith, I’m well aware, this is all in the abstract.)
Fandom doesn’t have any such barrier. You like the thing, you’re in. It ultimately has no use whatsoever as a cultural/societal identifier. If you like the same TV show, or anime, or video game as someone else it means….well. Basically nothing. There’s no guarantee you share anything else with them at all.
As a result, people who attempt to use fandom in this way ultimately get a rude awakening, and end up encountering someone they dislike. Or hate, even. And that’s where the problem starts.
The revelation that their fandom do not uniformly believe the same things is not often taken well. Rather than realizing that one’s choice in media is no guarantee of anything else about them, they develop the belief that this person they dislike is not a real fan. They’re fake. They’re seeking to harm the fandom. They’re the enemy. And if it’s the creator? Oh boy, does shit go off then.
Ultimately, these people project their own personal beliefs and morality onto a work of fiction that doesn’t, and never did, support them. They adopt the completely ludicrous expectation that any other fan they meet must be just like them, and believe all the same things as them. Anyone who doesn’t is a real fan, and has to be destroyed. And that person is now a toxic fan, the kind that’ll harass, send death threats, and blackmail or threaten the creators.
And the problem is only going to get worse. Online communication and support is only going to become a bigger and bigger part of people’s lives going forward. That’s why there’s a clear level of escalation in ‘bad’ fandoms. People who are more and more ‘online’ are making up the majority of these fandoms, and lacking any other traditional support network or thing to identify as, become these toxic fans.
So the question becomes; how to fix it?
Well, like any widespread sociological problem, there isn’t an easy answer. Lord knows I’m not smart enough to figure one out.
But most of these people are children.
Adults reading this do have some degree of responsibility to try and guide them into more responsible and healthy behavior, and criticize them when they fall into toxicity. Will all of them listen? Of course not. God knows I never listened to adults when I was a teenager.
But some of them will, and if the toxic cesspool that is modern fandom can be even slightly purified, it’s worth it to try.
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